Social System Capture; The ‘real’ End of Poverty ?

The end of poverty is the documentary title that was selected for viewing and discussion at The Global Native’s (TGN) Film Night in Leeds this past May, 2014. The film outlines the structural development of global poverty and pegs the date 1492, the conquest of Latin America as what they suggest as the beginning of Capitalism. It show that in today’s form, the ‘free market’ has largely skewed development and exists primarily to transfer wealth from poor to rich, causing poverty at a global scale. In the debate that followed, TGN concurred with most of the films findings and further suggested another way to ‘do’ development – to which Sarah Wamugunda, in attendance, posed the question of ‘absolute lack… what of slum dwellers?’ she asked. While TGN currently works in agriculture, we are convinced that a good development approach should be applicable across all sectors. For this reason, and to Sarah’s question, I have rethought the subject of slums, the so called ‘landscapes of poverty’ within the dynamics of development.

This paper therefore, attempts, in limited space, to demonstrate poverty as a symptom of ‘power (im)balance’, and argues in the context of urbanism that to address poverty means addressing the structural power relations that cause it. The concept of poverty is fluid, it includes rural farmers of China, African-Americans in the Bronx, slum dwellers in Mumbai, refugees in the Middle-East and labourers in Mozambique’s sugar plantations – they are all considered poor and suffer material lack. However, they are not poor in the same way, what they have in common is that they occupy the lowest levels of their respective societies. They have been called the bottom billion (Collier, 2007) in the global ‘pecking order’, the weak (Scott, 1985) in the context of power and the subaltern (Gramsci, 1971) as a dominated class. Therefore those we call ‘the poor’ are really ‘the oppressed’ in various ways – politically, physically and mostly economically; this paper will focus on the latter. Here the concept of poverty breaks down since it homogenises the ‘oppressed’ and unhinges them from the cause(s) of their oppression thereby concealing the structure(s) of poverty by highlighting only its symptoms (what they lack); the paper therefore will employ the term subaltern interchangeably with poverty to highlight this causality.

In large cities, produced through industrialisation, population growth and associated rural urban migration, the poor are represented by the iconic dwellings of slums and tenements, the ‘landscapes of poverty’ that make up a ‘planet of slums’ (Davis, 2007). This geographical shift brought conflict and challenges prominently portrayed in housing as a frontier of collision between classes. Since urbanism can be understood as ‘concrete sociality’ or the physical evidence of social production, organisation, class structure and power relations; housing is the site where people concretely claim parts of the city and demonstrate their place in the socioeconomic order. Much scholarship has been dedicated to understand and remedy these landscapes that take various forms from the favela of Brazil where land is illegally squatted and incrementally developed; to South Africa’s hostels and slums which were governmentally sanctioned as part of Apartheid’s ‘separate development’. For example, single sex hostels were an efficient way to pack and control black labour necessary for economic growth but not social development, an unsightly but necessary part of economics, a place to store away ‘surplus humanity’ (Davis, 2007). After Apartheid, families flooded the hostels transforming them into a type of ‘hybrid slum landscape’ though serving the same purpose. In response, “slum eradication” through various techniques is still the basic approach to these landscapes albeit the quagmire of how to do away with slums, such as upgrade and formalisation.

Although developers have experimented with many policies to develop slums, these interventions mostly addressed only the ‘symptom’ through State and recently NGO and aid models. However, post-development theory argues that this managerial development is itself a knowledge discourse imposed on the poor (subaltern) to exercise power (Escobar, 1995), and if this structure remains, poverty will persist. George (2014) argues that “no level of human suffering in and of itself will ever cause policy to change. It’s not starvation, poverty and suffering that moves policy makers, it is only a change in the balance of power”. The ‘symptoms of poverty’ (scarcity and lack) are produced systematically through the market which incentivises the maintenance of a ‘cheap labour’ supply to maximise profit. Therefore poverty to the subaltern, is not a lack of things, it is a loss – of power to provide basic needs, and must therefore be addressed through justice (to change oppressive power relations) and not charity which only aids in coping with oppression; but (how) can the poor garner or wield power to change their circumstances?

Power is an equally vague concept, Nye (2005) likens it to love “easier to experience than to define or measure”; power is to social science what energy is to physics (Eriksen, 2001). Some basic categories include ‘power as capability’, as an attribute or possession (Heywood, 2011), the ability to cause others to act in a way they would not have chosen, such as force or finance. But power can also be relational, or ‘soft power’ coined by Nye in the 1980s referring to the ability to influence rather than coerce. In all power is not ‘total’, or ‘absolute’ and in this sense while the subaltern is oppressed, (s)he is not powerless – so then, in what way(s) can the subaltern exercise power, particularly towards concrete life improvement? It is often said that the poor have power in numbers, they can ‘show force’ through riots, revolution and manifestation, these acts can bring structural change but they do not guarantee ‘change for better’, but a ‘soft power’ approach, in this case ‘informal power’, could be employed with different results.

While slums are viewed as undesirable landscapes and have been the subject of intervention for eradication and more recently through upgrade; they still persist – this in itself is power. In acknowledgement, the concept of Subaltern Urbanism, ‘undertakes the theorization of the megacity and its subaltern spaces and subaltern classes… Writing against apocalyptic and dystopian narratives of the slum, subaltern urbanism provides accounts of the slum as a terrain of habitation, livelihood, self-organization and politics” (Roy, 2011). In the face of the formal market, which is argued to have brought untold damage and poverty (George, 2014), these ‘landscapes of poverty’ have evolved as an answer to the abrasive nature of the capital market. While multitudes are used as cheap labour for economic growth, they do not benefit from it, thus slums are the answer to living on the socioeconomic periphery. There are countless definitions of what slums are; but what slums do is far more critical to understand – since they provide a space of repose for the poor. Slums are not unhinged from the market economy, but are not exactly run by it either; they produce a form of ‘guerrilla capitalism’ whereby the subaltern selects when and to what extent they expose themselves to the market through the informal (as opposed to illegal) market. They are sites of economic resistance, a space to negotiate formal power through informal means and they reinvent economics. This is why they persist, even against the backdrop of bulldozers and flying bullets, establishing a ‘slum’ should be understood as no less than a revolutionary (f)act.

So far, the paper demonstrates power in slums; but negotiating social change could also be rethought along these lines of power – in essence, power to capture the systemic causes of poverty. What I have provisionally termed ‘Social System Capture’, is an approach that utilises the ‘soft’, ‘relational’ or ‘informal’ power of the poor to address social change through systemic capture.

Mbongeni Ngulube, Policy director and Na Ncube, exec director of The Global Native give an interview at the official launch of Turning Matabeleland Green in Leeds.
Mbongeni Ngulube, Policy director and Na Ncube, exec director of The Global Native give an interview at the official launch of Turning Matabeleland Green in Leeds.

For example, the community of Pom (Fort) Mahakan in Bangkok is composed of about 300 families living on a quarter of a hectare facing the historical Paan Fa pier and bridge where the city had planned a public park. They faced eviction for a decade and resisted through protest, litigation and public appeal, in the process they evolved a well-thought-out land sharing plan (Herzfeld, 2003) which included maintenance of cultural activities such as dance, a kick-boxing school, crafts and food stalls (ibid) to no avail. At this time the city had launched a heritage programme sanctioned by the king which recast Bangkok as a ‘heritage centre’ adding more reason for the eviction. In partnership with scholars and activists, the residents responded by ‘labelling’ their community as a heritage location showcasing authentic vernacular architecture and lifestyle thus effectively ‘capturing’ the very discourse meant for their eviction. In this way they pervert the discourse for their own ends without reinventing the structure. Such ‘systemic capture’, in this case, of gentrification, which is only “the sharp point of a big wedge” (Herzfeld, 2010), can be modelled in other systemic forms such as the financial sector, to shift power to the subaltern without necessarily reinventing the infrastructure.

To this end, The Global Native, through Turning Matabeleland Green and Enaleni Shares, is doing just that. The business and finance sectors are structured to disadvantage the poor through skewed labour trade and wage suppression, what Harvey (2010) calls “the internal contradictions of capital accumulation”. In a typical cycle, a wealthy board invests in a means of production, say a factory, and acquires cheap labour to maximise profit, in the process draining the labourers. TMG replaces the board with a community of relatively poor migrants in diaspora who invest through a symbiotic relationship, in similarly poor farmers in Zimbabwe; this way, the ‘structure’ of capitalism is reworked for the benefit of both poor communities and sidesteps ‘big business’. While Harvey (1991) and like minded scholars argue for a reconstitution of society “in such a way that poverty would be impossible” (Žižek, 2009), this paper seeks only to suggest a means to durably cope with the systemic poverty inherent in the global capitalist system.


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Mbongeni Ngulube

A Mundus Urbano Scholar under the EU's excellency program, Mbongeni lectures at several universities, including the Technische Universitat Darmstadt, Germany; Universitat Internacionale de Catalunya, Barcelona, Spain and University Pierre Mendes, Grenoble, France. He is a doctoral researcher at the Institute for Anthropological Research in Africa located at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, Belgium. His current research focuses on the effect of the African Diaspora and Social Movements on development practice and theory. He also regularly engages in conferences, seminars and high profile policy debates, such as the one at the British Parliament’s House of Commons. Ngulube completed and published a co-edited book titled Reflections on Development and Cooperation published and released in January 2011.